Art & Lit

Tales of a Monster: ‘A Monster Calls’

monster calls
Patrick Ness

The history of monsters is just as long as the history of man. We grew up with them; they are the shadow at the corner of your eye, or that strange, out-of-nowhere noise in the dead of night, or the gigantic figure in a nightmare, with sharp claws to tear off your flesh and glowing eyes to see through your soul. They are always lurking in the dark, not near enough to be seen but close enough to be felt. They are the unpredictable, the unidentifiable, and the inexplicable. They are also the unavoidable. Strangely, no matter how scared we may be, we are at the same time drawn to monsters – just look at all those films, TV shows, and novels that feature werewolves, vampires, ghosts, witches, and other creatures that we simply cannot push away, even when we know they aren’t real. What have monsters done to deserve such attention?

It is simply impossible to have a perfect day, but the imperfection does not make the day less meaningful. This is essentially the message encoded in the Monster’s tales.

The word ‘monster’, in the Middle Ages was believed to have been derived from the Latin word ‘monstrare’, to demonstrate, in the sense that monsters are supposed to show us some truth. But what is it that they are supposed to reveal? Each person will have a different answer to that question, and that answer is closely tied to the darkest secrets, those that we hide even from ourselves. This is certainly the case with A Monster Calls, a Young Adult fiction that is in fact about how to grow out of the ‘young’ to become the ‘adult’. It revolves around a young boy, Connor O’Malley, who has been going through pretty much all the bad things imaginable for a teenage boy: his mother is dying of cancer, his father has long abandoned them, he is bullied by schoolmates and pitied by teachers, and he is about to live with his grandmother, whom he does not like at all. But to top them all, he is having the same nightmare every night, at precisely seven minutes past midnight. Then, a monster is awakened by his anguish and walks the earth. He comes for Connor, yet not to heal his mother or punish the bullies at school. Instead, he offers three stories, each a deconstructed fairy-tale. The world is turned upside down: the evil is not always in the wrong, the good is not necessarily righteous. And the endings…well, are not happy.

But nor are they bad. The world itself is a mixture of good and bad, where the bad does not spoil the good. A boy is bullied; a boy is also showed kindness; a boy’s mother is dying; a boy is loved and cared for. It is simply impossible to have a perfect day, but the imperfection does not make the day less meaningful. This is essentially the message encoded in the Monster’s tales. He means to show Connor the world as it is. As the three stories proceed, the story world becomes closer and closer to Connor’s, until Connor and the protagonist overlap. Then he is forced to tell a fourth story in return, which turns out to be his nightmare. This is the first and only time that the author, Patrick Ness, shows the nightmare in the full, previously seen only through fragments in flashbacks. Through reliving his nightmare, Connor becomes finally able to face himself.

The process of peeling through each layer of the story to get to the core parallels Connor’s journey of self-discovery and self-recognition. While the Monster is forceful and persistent when Connor is reluctant, he is surprisingly gentle when Connor, ashamed of his deepest thoughts, is crying before the naked truth. The Monster does not only show but also forgives; and that’s better than anything, for, though Connor will still endure troubles in the future, he at least reconciles with himself and with the world.

The film adaptation, released across the UK on the first day of 2017, adds a final twist to the story: when Connor has settled in his granny’s house, he finds his mother’s old sketch book—her backstory entirely being the movie’s invention—and, to his very surprise, discovers a drawing of the Monster. We know, from the movie, that Connor’s mother has lost her father at a young age, and while it is not revealed how, the obvious conclusion is something quite like Connor’s own experience. At that moment, all the threads in the story are suddenly tied together. The Monster becomes generalised, and the story relatable to anyone who has suffered any kind of loss and pain at any stage of their life. The Monster will walk for you too, as he does for Connor; all you need to do is to listen, to embrace, and, finally, to let go.

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